Missional Renewal and Congregational Change: Listening, Piloting and Celebrating

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My friend Richard is the captain of a recreated 1600‘s colonial ship in Jamestown Virginia. From time to time they sail to participate in community events. He tells me they are quite difficult to steer especially if the winds blow contrary to the chartered course. He also tells me that if the ship is to stay on course he must steer ever so slightly, literally centimeters at a time. The danger is over-correction, which for a ship of this type can lead them significantly off course and create a number of unexpected problems for both captain and crew to navigate. As if that isn’t enough, it takes quite a bit of time and travel to correct an over-correction. Depending upon the wind gusts an over-correction can take you far off course and behind schedule wearying captain and crew. The moral of the story is that over-correcting an ancient ship is an easy thing to do and causes a variety of unexpected problems.

In an effort to chart a new course for the Church, leaders and equippers often over-correct. They launch new programs or ministry initiatives after “preparing” the Church with a sermon series. This approach is a program-centric attempt at change nurtured by a one-way form of communication from the leaders/equippers to the congregation. No doubt that several private one-on-one conversations may happen, but congregational discernment and listening practices are negated. The Church is expected to change simply because it’s the “right” or “necessary” thing to do. So the new program/ministry initiative is launched with great applause but soon fades away leaving in its path burned-out people, hurt feelings and no transformative change.

So what can we do? This is where “piloting” change comes into play. When I arrived at Williamsburg Christian Church our small groups ministry needed change. There were three groups totaling approximately 25 people, and they were mostly inward-focused. Instead of meeting with group leaders to cast a new vision and preaching a few sermons followed by launching a new “small group program,” I decided to take a different approach. I wanted to pilot the change.

Piloting is an intentional way of exploring a different way of being in the world together with other disciples. If failures or difficulties arise it impacts a small few who are aware of this possibility and are equipped to work through it in a healthy way, rather than the entire faith community. More importantly, piloting teaches a community of disciples how to listen and discern what God is up to in their context.

For my wife and I, the first move to piloting change for our small groups involved inviting others to share in this life and mission with us. We wanted to meet around the table, practice prayer and discern Scripture three weeks a month to learn how to be with God as a community so that in the fourth week we could intentionally join Him in what He was doing in the lives of our neighbors and co-workers. It would require each of us to listen attentively with our ears and eyes to our neighbors and co-workers. Who might God be calling us/me to love? Who might God be calling to love me/us? Who are the single moms among us? Who are the widows? Who just had a family loss or addition? How could we be present with them in this season and serve them in some tangible way? We wanted it to be much more than service projects, we wanted it to be presence; we wanted to extend gracious hospitality and make room for them in our life together by demonstrating tangible acts of self-giving love. As I shared this vision with other families in the Church four of them agreed to join us. So together we began exploring life and mission as one and the same.

We began by sharing a plate of my wife’s chocolate chip pumpkin muffins with the single mom living next door. Eventually she joined our faith community. We shared neighborhood meals, many with my sixty-year old neighbor and his family of seven. We cooked and delivered meals to our sick or pregnant co-workers. We spent a couple of weekends restoring a neighbor’s garden that withered and died after her husband passed away. Each time we were able to join in on what God was doing in their lives we were able to offer good news in some bad news saturated circumstances, and developed surprising new friendships along the way. As the preacher I would publicly share and celebrate these stories with the Church on Sundays. I had to make sure it didn’t come off as bragging about our missional community but about God and how He is always at work among us inviting us to join with Him in ordinary ways and everyday places.

As these stories of good news were celebrated our pastors and elders began sensing an impulse beating within the Church by how people were listening and responding. God’s missionary Spirit was stirring His people to become a part of new stories. Some members wanted to begin their own missional communities while others wanted to become part of one. Soon, the other small groups wanted to re-frame how they explored life together. In only one year’s time three inward-focused small groups multiplied into six missional communities all committed to exploring the gift of life and mission with God as one and the same, neighbor to neighbor, co-worker to co-worker.

What we believed God wanted and sensed Him doing He was steadily and slowly accomplishing. We only needed to organize around the missional impulses already stirring as opposed to creating a new structure with the hope of stirring one up. This is the difference between allowing church structures/systems to submit to the Spirit or asking the Spirit (and people) to submit to our various church structures/systems.

Since church leaders are often concerned about numerical metrics I will hesitantly offer some (though we do not generally attend to these types of metrics any longer). After three years we have nine missional communities gathering in and serving their neighbors. We hope to launch two more by the end of the year. We will continue to create more space in our Sunday gatherings for God’s people to publicly share and celebrate the stories He is writing among them.

Missional renewal and congregational change will not happen by sermon alone where change is gently or forcefully dictated from the leadership to the congregation. Missional renewal and congregational change happens when a congregation develops a posture of listening to what God is doing among them and are invited to discover ways to join Him there.

One way to begin developing this posture is by piloting change and celebrating the stories God is writing in and through the piloting community. If you are a leader or equipper in your Church, piloting change should begin with you. If you lead this way, you will be postured for deeper theological reflection as the stories you invite others to celebrate will have both personal and communal integrity. You will move from issuing marching orders toward change to inviting others into what God could already be doing among the entire community as witnessed by your piloting community.

Finally, and I believe this is key, you will move from preaching about practices to preaching what you already practice in the context of intentional community—your piloting community.

What impulses are stirring in your congregation? How could “piloting” change bring about lasting systemic change within your congregation?

Who within the Church do you personally connect to? Do they have the capacity and character to join you in a piloting community? What are some ways you might pilot change within a piloting community in order to make identified missional impulses flourish?

Share with us what you’re thinking and let’s keep the conversation going.

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